Monday, June 13, 2005

Five labor unions are drawing up a framework for a new coalition to represent their 5 million members because they are increasingly dissatisfied with the AFL-CIO’s strategy to bolster the labor movement.

The unions plan to outline a strategy tomorrow to start a new group and raise $1 billion over the next five years to fund organizing efforts and to breathe life into a floundering labor movement.

The new group would include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Unite Here, Laborers’ International Union of North America, and Teamsters union.

Their departure would represent a major fracture within a labor movement that is reeling from infighting and declining membership.

The unions, which represent about 40 percent of the AFL-CIO’s 13 million members, have been trying during the past year to convince the leadership of the labor federation to spend more money to increase the number of union workers and to spend less on political activity.

“Organizing on a mass scale is the best route to ensuring that the U.S. labor movement is representative of the work force,” they said in statement posted on a Web site linked to the SEIU site.

AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said following an executive committee meeting yesterday that the labor federation must pursue a dual strategy.

“Union growth and workers’ political power are fundamentally linked and we must strengthen both simultaneously,” he said.

Mr. Sweeney gets credit for boosting the AFL-CIO’s political efforts, but critics blame him for failing to stop a decline in membership. The number of people in unions has fallen from 35 percent of the work force in 1955 to 12.5 percent, or 13 million workers, today. Only about 8 percent of private-sector workers are in unions.

It is not clear whether the unions will sever ties with the AFL-CIO or maintain membership while using the new group to support organizing drives, and they have declined to discuss their plans until tomorrow.

Their departure from the AFL-CIO, which formed in 1955, would be a financial disaster for the federation. The SEIU alone contributes about $10 million per year to the AFL-CIO.

But their decision to leave would not come as a complete surprise.

SEIU President Andrew Stern has promised for months to leave the federation unless the AFL-CIO embraced substantial reforms aimed at investing more money in organizational efforts. Over the weekend, the union’s executive board gave him the authority to do so.

Today, the executive board of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union also plans to discuss leaving the AFL-CIO.

The new coalition could serve as an umbrella organization for the dissident unions.

“I think Andy and his gang are leaving it intentionally vague as to what [the coalition] is,” said Paul Booth, executive assistant to Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Union officials yesterday cautioned that it is premature to say the five unions are forming a new federation, but the Web site outlined some goals of the “Change to Win Coalition.”

The Change to Win Coalition said its campaign is rooted in enlisting millions of women, immigrants and minorities in unions.

The coalition also proposes the formation of a 15-member executive committee that includes four positions for minorities.

“The new coalition will embark on an ambitious and urgently needed campaign to dramatically increase organizing among nonunion workers and set new standards for cooperation and accountability in the union movement,” the unions said.

The coalition could decide to remain in the AFL-CIO until the end of July, when the federation holds its convention. They could secede if members re-elect Mr. Sweeney, who first was elected in 1995.

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